Friday, January 8, 2021

12 Days to a Fresh Start: Capitol Memories

Did your middle school or high school class visit Washington, DC, as my senior class did 55 years ago? From across our great land thousands of students annually embark on a trip that often is more memory inducing than civics inspiring.

Back in 1966 an FBI agent walked us through FBI headquarters, filling us with stories of how the bureau captured gangsters and saved us from the evils of communism and its secret agents. We saw money being printed at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. We climbed to the top of the Wasington Monument, arduous but not beyond our capacity as 17- and 18-year-olds. We dawdled at key monuments, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. We didn’t get to go inside the White House but we spent time at several Smithsonian buildings.

We examined the Capitol, inside and out. We viewed the magnificent rotunda with its huge pictures depicting historical events including Columbus landing in the New World, British troops surrendering after the Battles of Saratoga and Yorktown, and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. We gazed to the top of the cupola to ever so difficultly see the fresco and frieze with even more detail of our national history. 

We stood in the original location of the House of Representatives and the original Senate chamber. We took turns sitting in the balcony of the House. 

Over the next four decades I visited Washington at least once a year, mostly to visit my brother and his family, but also to join anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, to march to express solidarity with Soviet Jewry seeking freedom, to view a new Smithsonian exhibit and the opening of the National Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

I never again stepped foot inside the Capitol until May 2010 when, as a member of Shalom Yisrael of Westchester, I led a group of eight Israeli women during a visit to Washington. Each subsequent year with a new group of women, all first responders to terror and national disasters in their country, I rekindled my relationship with the Capitol until this year’s excursion was suspended because of COVID-19. 

The Shalom Yisrael trips to Washington followed a pattern. Over a two day period we’d visit the National Mall, stopping at the statue of Albert Einstein for a group picture, walk across Constitution Avenue to the Vietnam War Memorial, and then climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Gazing east we would see the Washington Monument and the Capitol lined up in a straight line. We would walk through the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. Depending on their interests our Israeli guests spent time at different building of the Smithsonian Institute. 

If Congress was in session, recently retired Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) would spend an hour or more with us over lunch in the congressional dining room. One of her staff walked us through the Capitol’s nooks and crannies, the original rooms for the Supreme Court, the House of Representatives, Statuary Hall in the crypt of the building, and the rotunda. 

We would sit in the balcony of the House, one time observing as a congressman advocated for more foreign aid for Israel. The Israelis were familiar with the venue, having watched it many times during presidential addresses and when their prime minister addressed a joint session of Congress. 

Another time, before he was selected as a vice presidential candidate in 2012, I pointed out to them Congressman Paul Ryan. In 2019, while waiting for an elevator, I thanked Rep. Jerrold Nadler for his tireless efforts to rein in Trump’s excesses. 

The point here is not to showcase my encounters with elected officials, but rather to reinforce the access everyday citizens had to members of our legislature and to the very halls of our government. 

I could not help but think of those moments during the madness that unfolded before our eyes on Wednesday. Multiple times I have walked through the very halls and corridors these insurgents terrorized and vandalized. When the Shalom Yisrael program resumes, hopefully in Fall 2021 or spring 2022, I wonder how I will explain what happened. 

Was it the coordinated action of an outlier segment of our populace, egged on by a despondent, despotic-minded president, or the spontaneous revolt of a handful of dissidents who, encountering little resistance from unprepared and undermanned security personnel, overwhelmed guards and in a frenzy defiled the “people’s house” and shamed our national heritage? 

Either explanation will not shield me from embarrassment.